Breathe, Breathe,” Leo whispered down to all his new chips as he stirred and mixed them at the Poker table. By this time, the actions of the 85-year-old Leo Montoya were no alarm to the other players in the Montego Bay Poker room in Wendover. He had been reminding everyone throughout the day that you could see the monkeys at the zoo for the same two-dollar ante amount. “And they’re dirty! My god! They make me ashamed of being a human!”
A couple of older poker friends that knew Leo as Monte seemed to understand his language. The younger generation at the table watched him like a smart phone. The table was full of kittens and bears, according to Leo. “You have to be a bear!” he repeated to players at the table. “Oh be quiet Monte,” long time poker acquaintance Diana cut in, “if you weren’t so ugly and old, I’d marry ya.” We had been living on a steady flow of beers from the cocktail waitress and complementary sausage soup. Leo is in incredible shape for his age but we could all tell the drinks were starting to get to him. He started acting tired and his betting was all over the place. He was playing every other hand and giving chips away like candy. “I just want to get in ONE hand with him with ANY decent cards”, a young twenty year old from Salt Lake kept saying. As the dealer dealt out a new hand to the table, Leo gave out a different burst of life that stopped the poker room. “Aagh!” he yelled as he shot his chair back and held his right thigh. “Do we need to call the paramedics?” the dealer quickly asked. All Leo let out were moans. “Monte? Are you okay?” Leo kept grunting and grabbed an uncounted stack of red five-dollar chips and threw them in the middle. The dealer took this as Leo was ok enough to play. She pushed his chips back in front of him and pulled them back in the pot when it was Leo’s turn to bet. “Leo bets ninety five.” I was almost positive that Leo had not glanced at the board cards and maybe not even his own cards. The community board now showed an ace, two nines, and a three. Leo was letting out constant groans, holding his leg a few feet back from the table. An older, golfer looking type gentlemen at the end of the table pushed out a large bet. The pot now exceeded three hundred and had two and a half players in it. In his still hunched position Leo leaned in and grabbed another stack and pushed it in to call the bet. “I don’t have to put in any more do I?’ he moaned.
A friend suggested getting a photograph of the Boxing club owner for the Rose Park neighborhood documentary I was doing. I remember seeing his old white building with Leo Montoya’s Boxing Club painted on the side. I didn’t really know what to expect when walking in there but I was a little nervous to meet a guy that has been coaching people to fight for over sixty years.
After a fast professional introduction Leo field tripped me straight into his house– through his massive trophy collection from his own thirteen children, into his office with framed photographs of him with Cassius Clay, and ending in his gym– all while spilling out his History Channel life story. I didn’t know if I should be taking photographs, trying to write everything down, or just listen. From his office, all I could see out his window was the white wall of his gym next door. In that same building, Leo has been giving neighborhood kids the chance to professionally train and fight since the early seventies. While he may not be coaching the 10 to 15 regular boxers directly lately, his presence is known in and around the gym daily, and he has no plans in stopping what he does. The more I talked to Leo the more I wanted to learn about him. As our various meetings continued, the more I learned about his history.
Leo was born in Cortez, Colorado in 1927. When he was eight, his family moved to Utah looking for work at the Coal Mines. Leo worked at a number of mines throughout Utah and New Mexico as a kid. At Sixteen he ended up at the Coal mine in Utah his family moved out for. He cleaned boxcars and shoveled coal. After a forty question shot fire test, he started working with explosives. He drilled and temped small cylinder holes in areas coal was suspected to be. When all the workers were cleared out of the area he would yell “fire in the hole!” then trigger the dynamite with a battery pack from outside the mine.
During WW2, at age 18, Leo enlisted in the army and spent his first two years at Fort Gulick near the Panama Canal. Training and boxing was very accessible for the troops and Leo took every advantage; training every day and practicing with other army and navy recruits. Leo built a name for himself during this time and was picked to compete in the Amateur Boxing competition ate the Pan American games in St. Louis. He took the Gold medal.
In 1953, after four years in the service Leo started a career that fit his hyper self and kept his hands moving; becoming a sheet metal specialist. He worked on the wings of B52’s and helicopter gas tanks at US army bases from Hill Air force Base in Layton to bases in Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, and the Philippines.
During this time Leo slowed down his boxing career to focus on coaching others. He found his dream space in an old second hand shop named Paley’s Junk Palace. He gutted it out, installed hardwood floors, took out partitions and had American steel donate a giant I beam to convert the old shop into the open aired gym it is today.
A week before Leo and I made our trip to Wendover I went over to his house for our last interview. Leo has a cement patio that seems to be the whole center of a suburban block across four or five backyards that are laid with concrete. With all the odd shaped patches, holes, and dirt, it resembles a privatized park. In this cemented area there is a 1985 white Cadillac and two golf carts with crime watch stickers on the front and. I walked across the open area to his patio door, open as usual, with a nice breeze flowing in. As I leaned in to knock, Leo yelled at me to come in. He was standing at his kitchen counter carefully turning a miniature screwdriver on the back of a picture frame. He greeted me without looking up, maybe wanting to finish his project before we started our interview. His house and furniture displays a quiet life. As his Chihuahua follow barked me into the living room, Leo picked up his aged phone off the receiver and set it on the table. He didn’t seem phased by the loud off-the- hook-beep through the first three minutes of our interview.
IAN: When did you first start putting on the gloves?
LEO: When I was in school in Lumberton, New Mexico. A Nun Catholic school. I was 13, 14 years old. I used to get the gloves on and go rounds with everybody at the school. The priest, Father Gerard, used to be a boxer. He taught a little bit. I was there for eight years.
IAN: Did you have siblings to box with growing up?
LEO: One of my brothers, the younger one by a year and a half,we used to put the gloves on. He was pretty good.
IAN: When did you get serious about boxing?
LEO: The best training was in the service. We had coaches there. We used to have competitions with other bases, ya know. Army and Navy. Then later on they put all the boxers in Fort Gulick. They put us separate from the other guys and we did was just boxing. But boy we worked. When you’re boxing, you train. They get you up at four or five o’clock in the morning and you’re running already. I used to run about eight miles. Everyone was in tiptop shape. And I was a boxing fanatic so I enjoyed every bit of it.
IAN: When did you start coaching?
LEO: In 1953 when I got out of the service. I lived at 1098 West 800 South in Salt Lake by the Jordan River. I hung a bag out in the back. I didn’t have no cement, no nothing. There was about 35 or 40 kids doing calisthenics. You couldn’t see them, it was just a ball of dust y’know. The Golden Glove director, Harry Miller. He says to me, Mr, Monte, how come your team keeps winning, I want to see your gym…. you boys keep winning. We were beating every tournament here. He comes over and sees a pile of dust and says, where’s your gym? And I say, “right there!” All the kids are in the dust all full of dirt and everything. So he says, stay there, I’ll be right back. He came back with, I think, KUTV channel 2 and took pictures and there they started giving me a gym to train. And anyways I started training and Catholic churches, Mormon churches and other gyms helped me out.
IAN: How was coaching your own kids. Were you harder on them?
LEO: No, the same. My kids are the same. I call them my sons when they join the club. Doesn’t matter whose kid it is. I train equal. All my own six boys were Golden Glovers. They were main-eventers. They were good, very good boxers. One of my daughters wanted to box. She never told me. If she had told me I would have trained her. But in those days there were hardly any girls fighting so I didn’t bother too much.
IAN: When were the best times for boxing?
LEO: It was better years ago. More legal. Everything was better. No headgear. I like the old times.
IAN: What do you consider the old times?
LEO: From the 70’s down that way. Now it’s money money money for every damn thing. Some guys are after the money but I’m not. But so be it, to each his own. I help kids that need help. I buy stuff at second hand stores and help kids in Wendover. Coaches just coach and they think they are doing a great thing. It’s not just being a coach it’s what you do behind that.
IAN: What’s the most important thing to teach kids about being in the ring?
LEO: The stance. Keep your elbows in. Punch with your body, I mean from the toe up to your head, move your whole body, not play with your hands, move your body ya know and snap the punch. That’s about it. In boxing once you learn how to box you can learn how to defend yourself anytime from then on until you die. I think every man should know how to defend himself, that’s my motto.
IAN: What do you think about MMA fighting?
LEO: Ya the people that are doing that are making money and, ahh, it’s no good. It’s not a sport. Some guy gets up and beats the shit out of another one, like a street fight I’d say. If you get the benefit of getting that guy on the ground then you just beat the shit out of him so bad and there’s no stopping it. I don’t go for that. Lets face it, if you had a brother or a son laying down there and the other one beating the hell out of him like that, no mercy at all, that’s no good.
IAN: What’s the greatest accomplishment of one of your own boxers?
LEO: Well I was happy when my kids won of course. I had Max, my youngest son, he fought three nights in a row and he won all three. Three fights. I don’t think they allow that anymore.
I advise anybody that learns how to box, as soon as they are ready to go professional, quit. What the hell do you want to go professional for? You get hit pretty hard and you could rattle your brains.
IAN: I noticed you have two crime watch carts now. What’s the crime watch all about?
LEO: Ya,I took it on my own. I was a director in housing and they put me in the neighborhood crime watch. I go around about 20 blocks here. Cause I don’t sleep, I get up two, three o’clock in the morning. I get in the wagon and get my flashlight and my phone, and I go around, if I see anything wrong I call the police. If water is leaking somewhere, if there is a big hole in the road, if a prostitute is walking the streets or I see someone stealing. All that good stuff.
At the poker table in Wendover everyone was wondering what was going on with the old self proclaimed bear at the table. Leo was still in the hand and still scooted away from the table holding his thigh in pain. Another large bet was made on the river card by the same gentlemen to put Leo all in. Leo slowly scooted forward in his chair and called. The man flipped over a nine showing a three of a kind. Leo then flipped two aces to show his full house and raked in the large pile of chips in silence. Pure confusion stared at him from everyone at the table. In the middle of the next hand I heard someone quietly ask at the end of the table, “so did Monte fake that leg cramp?” No one said anything or brought it up again. The question seemed unanswerable.